Cowboys vs. Vikings: What Can Special Teams Tell Us About The Final Roster?

Does Bryan McCann's place on the Cowboys' special teams suggest he's secured a roster spot?

As I've suggested in earlier posts, my favorite aspect of this part of the preseason, when the Cowboys are playing meaningless games and camp news has dwindled to a trickle, is to spend time deep in contemplation about the roster; after all, as our own Tom Ryle said in an earlier post, "I freely admit that my favorite thing to do in studying the Cowboys is to try and get inside the heads of the decision makers." So, when I watch preseason games, private little conspiracy theories abound: what does each move portend? Do the offensive formations called correlate in any way to roster battles? What subtle clues can we glean that offer insider information about how the coaches are thinking about the roster?

Its was in this frame of mind that I watched Saturday night's Cowboys tilt. This preseason, I have been particularly fascinated by the bottom-of-the-roster camp battles, especially given Jason Garrett's insistence on creating depth and competition throughout the roster. While most of the starting 22 has emerged with clarity, there are still several key battles going on for backup positions: third running back, fifth receiver, fifth (and sixth) corner(s), fourth OLB. As most of these will be decided by special teams play, I decided to focus my attention on who the coaching staff deployed on teams, with the idea that, by this time in the preseason, the coaches want to look at the guys who have a legitimate roster shot as they make their final determinations. In other words, "teams" can tell us a lot more in the third game "dress rehearsal" that they would in preseason game #1.

More after the jump...

I tracked who played on which teams the best I could. Because of the mediocre quality of the NFL's online game feed--which was the Vikings' broadcast, as they were the home team--I wasn't able to determine every guy. Most of the time, however, I was able to sleuth out at least nine or ten of the guys who were on the field. So, let's take a look at who played where--and what it might mean.

Punt team: all punts had a few constants: snapper L.P. Ladouceur and punter Mat McBriar, of course, as well as John Phillips, Victor Butler, Barry Church, and Jesse Holley. I think all these guys have made the team--and will be core special teamers in '10. To fill the other interior spots, Coach D. rotated in players at specific positions: fullbacks Jason Pociask, Shaun Chapas and Isaiah Greenhouse. At gunner, Bryan McCann and Alan Ball ran wth the first team; it looks like they were replaced by Raymond Radway and Danny McCray.

Punt return: The TV coverage on punt returns was abysmal--they kept focusing on Vikings punter Chris Klewe. For each of Minnesota's three punts, Dwayne Harris was back to receive the boot and his "up man" was Kevin Ogletree. Although they were usually the only guys in the camera frame, some of the usual suspects made appearances at the end of plays. Core guys Butler, Church, and McCray were joined by Greenhouse, Alex Albright, Radway, and Tanner. In garbage time, Andrew Sendejo and Chris Randle showed up.

Kickoff team: The KO team rotated more players in and out that anyof the other ST units. The first team, as the first punt team did, featured Ball and McCann as gunners. Covering with them were Holley, McCray, Kenwin Cummings (playing with a cast on his left hand), Church, and Sensabaugh. Later, Radway, Akwasi Owusu Ansah, Tanner and Holley rocked the outside positions. The eight positions (as well as kicker) were in flux, although several guys--Manny Johnson, Albright, Greenhouse--took a couple of rotations. Guys whose hopes of making the 53 have faded into obscurity like Lonyae Miller and Brandon Williams joined the likes of Mike Balogun to cover second half kicks.

Kickoff return: the Cowboys had three kickoff returns of note. The returner for the first was McCann, he was replaced for the next two by Radway. The other "back guys" were all fullback types. For the first tow KOs, Phillips and Gronkowski helped thie returner up the field; then Phillips was replaced by Chapas. Up front, the same core group that we saw on the punt team appeared on all the KO returns: Holley, Church, McCray, Butler. What was interesting was that they were joined by Phillip Tanner. Other players rounding out the KOR team were Pociask, Greenhouse and Tysson Poots.

Thoughts about what all this might mean: Given that last year was in no small part derailed by early special teams failures caused by the fact that DeCamillis was forced to overhaul his core special teams, it seems that Garrett and Coach D are going to try to keep the guys who eventually emerged as core guys later in the year. The guys that seem locks are those who are, conveniently, also playing well at their positions: Butler, Church, Phillips and Holley, who I think, with his play at wideout, made the team on Saturday. From the makeup of the various "teams," it appears that, if Ball, McCray and McCann are not on the team, they are very close. A couple of other guys who show up on more than one team, and took more than one rotation, were Albright and Cummings. To my mind, this suggests that they have a very good shot at the 53. 

After these guys, some interesting stuff happened with a couple of guys who have been battling for a roster spot and a group of guys who have been outdoing each other to get knocked off the roster. To wit:

  • Raymond Radway was included on 3 of the four teams units, as a gunner, coverage guy and kickoff returner. It seems clear the coaches are trying him out in myriad ways in order to see if they can find him a spot on the roster. To me, this suggests that they are nervous about him clearing waivers en route to the practice squad.
  • Along these lines, Phillp Tanner appeared on both return units, and covered punts. As with Radway, it appears the coaches are trying to find value in Tanner. Will they prefer a third back who can make plays on "teams," or a one-dimensional guy like Tashard Choice--whose one dimension is of indisputable NFL caliber. Of note, Choice didn't play any teams, and Lonyae Miller showed up only in garbage time.
  • They are giving their (thus far, unimpressive) stable of fullbacks--Chapas, Pociask, Gronkowski, and Greenhouse--equal opportunities to make the club by standing out on teams. All six teams units require players with the linebacker/ tight end/ fullback body type and skillset, so I think they'd really like one of these guys to step up and earn a spot--or somebody like Sean Lee might have to play teams, which would not be a good situation.

In addition, this admittedly cursory look at who played teams suggests that coaches might already be thinking of several "bubble" players as "off the roster" types. These are guys who are non-starters at positions--cornerback, safety, tight end, backup running back--where backups regularly appear on at least one of the special teams units. Yet, we saw very little of Mario Butler, Lonyae Miller, Owusu-Ansah, Martin Rucker, Andrew Sendejo or Josh Thomas. I have a hard time imagining that bodes well for their roster chances...

Later this week, I'll take another stab at the 53, in which I'll be taking some very obvious developments--the Andre Gurode situation--into account. But I'll also be using what I've learned (or believe I've learned) herein as I continue to try to get into Jason Garrett's head. If I'm spot on, maybe I'll go online and get a fake Princeton degree for my wall.

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